The sea bubbled as a humpback whale broke through the icy water. It was our last day in the Antarctic, and my lifelong dream of kayaking with whales was about to finally come true. My smile grew wider as I heard the unmistakable sound of a blow before being showered with droplets of water. The barnacle-covered head of a 20-foot calf was within five feet of my kayak. We had been paddling close to the Melchior Islands when we spotted the 40-foot mother and her two calves. We sat quietly, waiting and hoping these graceful mammals might come to us. Our colorful kayaks were certainly of interest. Time and again they would approach, dive just enough to glide underneath us; they were so close that we could almost touch them. Magical!
We had started our month-long charter from Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego and the southernmost tip of South America. This was to be a family affair. My wife, Melanie, sons Tim and Olly and Tim’s girlfriend, Lucy were all part of Icebird’s nine-strong crew, along with our Australian skipper, Cath Hew, Spanish first mate, Alex Jara, the mountain guide, Phil Wickens and Victor, a Ukrainian hitchhiking to the Ukrainian Antarctic base.
When we arrived in the Argentinian city, the wind was blowing 40 knots through the marina; Tierra del Fuego’s nickname, ‘The End of the World’, certainly seemed apt. Cath explained that in the Drake Passage, the wind would be blowing 60 knots; we would have to wait 24 hours for the wind to moderate before heading into the Southern Ocean.
The delay allowed us to familiarise ourselves with the yacht, which was powered by an extraordinary-looking aero rig. Built by Trintella in the Netherlands, Icebird’s aluminum hull has been reinforced for the ice. She was also insulated throughout and had a hydraulically operated lifting keel, giving her a draft of 1.9 meters – essential for access to safe shallow anchorages away from the drifting ice.
SOUTHERN OCEAN SURPRISES
We set sail down the Beagle Passage and waited at the entrance to the South Atlantic for the wind to abate. Storming downwind towards the sinking sun surrounded by white caps and snow-capped mountains was thrilling indeed. After spotting our first humpback whale we dropped anchor in the lee of a small island, home to a colony of gentoo penguins, with their distinctive orange-red bills and snow-white patches above the eyes.
The following morning the wind had dropped to a pleasant 20 knots from the west; we were on our way to Antarctica. The 600-mile passage would take us four days. We split into three watches, doing three hours on and six hours off, and waited for the first signs of ice.
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